Argument

The NBA’s Hong Kong Disaster Should Warn Britain Off Huawei

Boris Johnson is set to let the Chinese giant back into U.K. telecoms. That would be a mistake.

Then-London Mayor Boris Johnson shoots a basketball
Then-London Mayor Boris Johnson shoots a basketball during a photocall in central London on April 8, 2013. Carl Court/AFP via Getty Images

The British government is set to grant Huawei access to the parts of the United Kingdom’s 5G network deemed nonessential, likely opening a rift between the U.K. and its allies in the United States and across the Five Eyes. Sources close to the prime minister suggest that the decision is based on technological considerations: Huawei, they claim, is considerably further ahead in its implementation of the fifth-generation communications technology than any other company anywhere else in the world, and the U.K. would be missing out if it ruled out working with the Chinese telecommunications giant. Courting China in a post-Brexit world where the U.K. will need new trade deals might also have been a consideration.

Either way, this is an incredibly risky proposition. And it’s an unnecessary risk given that the U.K. could shield itself from Chinese censure over blocking Huawei by invoking the Trump administration’s ultimatum that London would be shut out of the Five Eyes alliance over such a decision.

But just how risky is it to grant Huawei access to the U.K.’s 5G network? After all, limiting its access to the nonessential parts sounds like a reasonable compromise. And getting Huawei’s advanced tech in exchange for that limited access sounds like a good deal.

The fundamental problem with Huawei, though, is that it is not a regular company along the lines of companies in the West. Everything it does goes back to Beijing—which does not take kindly to having its preferred narratives challenged. That Chinese companies must defer to government narratives has been the case for decades over Taiwan and Tibet—and if the West hadn’t already understood that dynamic, the point should have been driven home by the humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang. But the recent NBA scandal adds an entirely new dimension to the concerns about China in the West.

This latest scandal was about Hong Kong. A quick recap: The mainland government has leveraged its influence over the local government in the former British colony to encroach ever more thoroughly on the putative legal and political autonomy the city is supposed to have under the “one country, two systems” treaty agreement with Britain. The ongoing uprising in the city originates from a law introduced by the local government that would have allowed Hong Kongers to be deported to the mainland for trial—leaving them dangerously exposed to the whims of the Communist Party’s flawed justice system.

Enter international opinion. Many commentators have expressed dismay at the ways in which the Beijing leadership and their stooges in the Hong Kong executive have worked assiduously to undermine the one country, two systems arrangement. But some of those who decided to speak up in defense of the people of Hong Kong also happen to have commercial ties to mainland China—and have paid the price for it.

In the NBA case, the whole thing originated in a tweet expressing support for Hong Kong by a general manager of a basketball team in the United States. Chinese media decided to take umbrage at the tweet. The NBA distanced itself from the sentiments expressed in the tweet but stood by the right of its members to exercise their free speech. China was not impressed by this particular item of free speech—it never is in such circumstances. The problem, though, is that China also happens to be the NBA’s second-largest market, and plenty of Chinese firms sponsor the NBA.

No one in China, least of all no company that depends on the favor of the Communist Party to continue to thrive, wants to be seen as unpatriotic. Any association with points of view that contradict the supposed national interest of Beijing is the ultimate business liability. If the American NBA did not discard members for expressing a private political view, then Chinese enterprises would have to discard the NBA. It was only being called out by U.S. media and politicians that stopped the NBA from rolling over for Beijing.

This should serve as a cautionary tale to the British government over Huawei and other such tie-ups. The degree of control exercised by Beijing over large Chinese corporations is in truth far greater than even what we have seen with the NBA debacle. Chinese firms routinely humiliate themselves to show subservience to the party, whether it’s public apologies or pledges to recommit themselves to serving the party or handing over control to party cells.

Huawei’s specific ties to the Chinese military have been well reported and are worrying in and of themselves. But the real worry is much more fundamental: the simple fact is that Huawei is a Chinese firm in an environment where it’s utterly impossible for any business to be anything other than a client to the Chinese Communist Party.

To give Huawei access to any part of your communication infrastructure is to give a Chinese company the possibility to monitor communication flows in the entire country, possibly to intercept some of those communications, and most certainly to disrupt or outright interrupt communications throughout the country.

Does Huawei have some kind of nefarious plan to do any of this in the U.K.? Probably not. But that does not matter. Huawei does not have the latitude to be unpatriotic. Huawei as a company was built upon contracts with the Chinese military and, like any other large Chinese corporation, it is entirely dependent on the grace and favor of the Communist Party in Beijing to continue to operate.

And China’s Cybersecurity Law also stipulates that Chinese companies must furnish the Chinese government access to their data anytime the agencies of the government require it—meaning that if Huawei will not interfere with the U.K.’s 5G network on behalf of the Chinese government, then the agencies of the government will take the relevant information from Huawei and do it themselves.

This is what the Western public and governments must be aware of: Chinese companies do not operate under the same rules as Western companies. A Chinese corporation is not merely an economic entity. It is by necessity a political extension of Beijing’s will, both in domestic policy in China and, increasingly importantly, in the global markets.

And sure, there are plenty of situations where that does not matter. It does not matter whether your toy was made by a Chinese company. But it absolutely matters whether your entire communications infrastructure depends on a Chinese company. Whether we like it or not, whether they want to or not, a Chinese corporation is always a potential Trojan horse in waiting, at the beck and call of Beijing.

If Beijing can flex its muscle and bring to heel companies headquartered outside of mainland China, as it did with Cathay Pacific or Blizzard, and severely disrupt foreign companies that do not immediately bow their heads, like the NBA, then you can be sure that the Chinese companies that are systemically important to the Communist Party’s state in China are never more than a phone call away from being activated as geopolitical pawns for Beijing.

Giving Huawei access to the U.K.’s 5G network is not a reasonable and considered business transaction. It is handing veto power over communications infrastructure to a foreign, non-allied government. If post-Brexit the United Kingdom wants to become a Chinese client state, this might make sense. But is that what Brits voted for in 2016?

Azeem Ibrahim is a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College and a director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and a former expert advisor to the U.K. government’s Commission for Countering Extremism.  Twitter: @azeemibrahim

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